"I keep telling myself that we're going to the World Series. I'm used to watching the World Series at home. I'm not this year."
They express it in different ways, sometimes not at all, but the 10 players in the Tigers clubhouse who were around for the 119-loss season of 2003 share a common bond. Some of them played critical roles throughout, taking the ball win or lose -- generally the latter. Others had to develop along the way. But someday, maybe to their kids, all of them will have quite a story to tell of one of the ultimate rebuilding projects of all time.
"Bottom line, it's just a sense of satisfaction that you can't get from anything else," Brandon Inge said. "You went from the worst, and you were a part of it, and now we are the best, and you're also a part of it."
Nearly all the guys still around from that team were first- or second-year players in 2003. But then, practically all of the players on that team were. They were a combination of prospects of various levels, Rule 5 Draft picks from other organizations and Minor League journeymen, guys who were signed for depth in the farm system but who quickly became necessary parts once the Tigers realized what they had on their hands.
They were the first stage of a rebuilding process that began soon after the Tigers lost their first 11 games in 2002. As manager Alan Trammell said at the time, they were going to have to find out whether the kids could play. If they had been judged solely by the stats sheet, the answer would've been no on pretty much all of them.
Many were simply overmatched. Maroth was the experienced starter and staff ace after just a half-season in the big leagues. Jeremy Bonderman jumped from Class A to the Majors at age 20. Ramon Santiago and Omar Infante became the starting middle infield with less than a full Major League season between them.
Unlike the 2002 team, the Tigers lost only their first nine games in '03. But after their first win, they lost eight more. They were 3-25 by the first weekend in May, then they lost 21 of 23 during a stretch in June. By the midway point, they were on pace for 122 defeats, and the Minor League reinforcements were in to try to stop the bleeding. Warren Morris took over at second base, Kevin Witt at first, Chris Mears for a while at closer.
Asked what was the low point, Bonderman said, "I don't know. Every game. What can we say? We [stunk]."
As bad as things were, they were learning. Bonderman was beginning his transition from a thrower to a pitcher, understanding that he couldn't overpower big-league hitters. Inge, then a light-hitting catcher, was sent to Triple-A Toledo in mid-June with a .150 batting average. He returned in August tired enough of hearing about hitting that he simplified his approach. See ball, hit ball, he said. It couldn't be any more frustrating than what he was going through before.
"I will never, ever forget or want to go through a season like that ever again," Inge said recently. "I wouldn't wish it on anyone. It's no fun coming to the ballpark just getting beat around every single day. I appreciate this much more [because of it]."
But nobody took the brunt of it more than Maroth, who took the ball every turn through the rotation and whatever came with it. As the first pitcher to lose 20 games in a season since Brian Kingman in 1980, Maroth became the public face of the team, like it or not. His 20th loss at Toronto in early September was a spectacle of sorts, with Kingman watching in the half-empty stands.
It's not a story they have to tell very often.
"I think a lot of the guys kind of don't want to bring it up," Maroth said.
Those who survived it, of course, will remember.
"That took a lot of years off of our lives, man," Jamie Walker said. "There ain't telling how many I lost. Dog years, maybe. It's no fun coming to the field when you know you could have the worst record in the history of baseball."
Not until the Tigers won five of their last seven games, including a comeback from an 8-0 deficit on the next-to-last day of the season, could they rejoice at avoiding history. Oddly enough, what could've been a cascade of boo-birds for the season finale was instead a largely supportive crowd. When the Tigers, behind Maroth, finished off the win, they were serenaded off the field to a long standing ovation.
That's what stands out to Craig Monroe, then a fourth outfielder who was sent up and down five times between Detroit and Toledo in 2002.
"They've stuck with us," Monroe said. "They've been here through a lot of bad times. That's what makes it gratifying for us."
The players who have stuck through that year to make it here are a special group of sorts. They're not recognized outwardly, but there's a respect. When they clinched their playoff berth with a week to go, Ivan Rodriguez called it special to be celebrating with those guys.
As Maroth watches the games from the dugout, watching the rest of that group compete for a World Series championship, it's still special for him.
"When I knew I wasn't going to be on the playoff roster, it was pretty tough," Maroth admitted. "I didn't know how I was going to handle being a part of it, being here and watching the guys playing in the playoffs. But I've enjoyed it, because I've been able to watch guys that I've played with for several years now, a lot of guys who were around in the tough times, when we lost 119 games. And to watch them go out there and perform and succeed and help this team get to the World Series, I've been able to enjoy it through them.
"Guys like Bondo and C-Mo and Brandon, even Santiago and Omar, all of them, just knowing that we were together in the worst times ever, the feeling we had then to the feeling we have now, it's extremes. I'm just thankful for the opportunity just to be here. ... To be able to still be here and see this thing on the other side, where we're going to the World Series, it makes you forget about that. It makes everything that you went through, you forget about it and just try to take in the moment now. It's still surreal for me to realize that the Detroit Tigers are going to the World Series."